Europe’s re-entry capsule to build upon ATV experience (SFN)

PRAGUE — European officials say developing a re-entry module for its conceptual two-way space station cargo freighter would best position the continent for future human spaceflight applications, but its realization will depend on budget decisions starting late this year.

The European Space Agency plans to request approval from its member states by the end of this year for continued participation in the International Space Station through 2020 and further development of an Advanced Re-Entry Vehicle.

Speaking at the 61st International Astronautical Congress here, top ESA officials described how the cash-strapped agency plans continue its involvement in the space station through at least 2020.

Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s director general, said he expects to receive the go-ahead for the space station life extension from the agency’s member states by the end of 2010.

The governments of Russia and Japan have already approved the extra five years of life and the associated financial commitment. ESA, Canada and the United States are still awaiting formal confirmation.

Around the same time, ESA expects to ask for about 150 million euros, or about $200 million, for Phase B of the ARV, an upgraded version of Europe’s logistics carrier that first flew in 2008.

Officials have not discussed the overall cost for development of the new spacecraft.

The two-year second phase of the ARV program would address definition of the spacecraft’s requirements and capabilities before formal design and production kicks off in 2012.

Approval for Phase C and Phase D, the most costly part of any space development project, will have to wait for the next Ministerial Council meeting in 2012, said Simonetta Di Pippo, the director of ESA’s human spaceflight programs.

ESA pays for access to the International Space Station through cargo delivery services by the Automated Transfer Vehicle. Five ATVs have been ordered from EADS Astrium to supply the complex through 2014, but Europe must provide additional vehicles to continue its presence on the station through 2020.

Europe could also build more ATVs for one-way resupply services, but officials say they want to develop a more capable system.

“I don’t believe that’s the way to go,” Di Pippo said. “In the end, we want to use this new development on a longer-term (program) for the space station.”

Instead of ordering more copies of the ATV, the agency is proposing development of the ARV with the ability to return supplies and pressurized equipment, a significant need for the station after next year’s retirement of the space shuttle.

The ARV would include a shielded capsule designed to withstand the heat of atmospheric re-entry and return cargo to Earth.

“What we want to do is reuse to the maximum extent possible (our experience) on ATV,” Di Pippo said.

Astrium is currently wrapping up an 18-month Phase A study contract worth 21 million euros, or about $27 million.

The ARV could be ready for a demonstration flight by 2017 if ESA receives approval in 2012. Early requirements show it will carry at least 4,400 pounds of dry cargo to the station and return about 3,300 pounds.

Astrium’s Phase A studies have identified several major upgrades required for the ATV system to support a return capsule bolted on the forward end of the spacecraft.

The ARV would be outfitted with ESA’s new international docking and berthing mechanism, permitting it to dock with both the Russian and U.S. segments of the station. ATV missions are currently restricted to docking with the aft port of the Russian Zvezda service module.

Studies show the ATV’s guidance and navigation systems can accomplish an approach and docking with the forward end of the complex, where space shuttles pull into port for their assembly and maintenance visits, according to Marco Caporicci, chief of human orbital transportation and the re-entry division in ESA’s human spaceflight program.

“It was clear that the ATV service module doesn’t provide sufficient support to the payload,” Caporicci said in a presentation here.

Any future European cargo freighters need improved power generation systems and newer avionics to replace obsolete equipment on the ATV. A re-entry capsule will also require more electricity to power the spacecraft through landing, when sensitive equipment and biological samples need to be kept in pristine condition, according to Caporicci.

Larger solar array wings, a redesigned attitude control system, new rendezvous sensors, and an active cooling system are all included in the most basic ARV concept.

The ARV would target a splashdown landing in the Atlantic Ocean near the Azores or the Canary Islands.

Engineers are also considering more radical redesigns of the ATV, utilizing a clean sheat approach that could be evolved to carry unpressurized cargo or astronauts, Caporicci said.

But Di Pippo said the best approach is to reuse as many ATV design elements as possible to keep costs manageable.

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